Life’s Questions

In college, when we weren’t playing cards or planning a themed dinner party—our “side dish only” party still reigns as the greatest dinner party I’ve ever attended—my friends and I talked. We talked about everything. We talked about the contestants on American Idol, the lack of parking at Common Grounds, each other’s penchant for over-committing, the sorority stereotypes on campus, and our post-graduation dreams. We talked and talked but at some point I realized our conversations, on the whole, weren’t about anything real. It’s not that entertainment or on-campus happenings weren’t important because in the moment, they very much were, but every now and then we’d have a conversation about something substantive—something about who we were, what we believed and the reasoning behind our convictions—and those were the conversations I began to crave. We were in college after all, encountering new ideas every day, and with that came a host of new questions.

In my writing classes, we did a warmup exercise I was extremely fond of. At the beginning of the semester, we’d write random words on slips of paper and drop them into a plastic bin. On the slips could be nouns, verbs, or adjectives and at the start of each class period, we’d draw a few slips and take five or ten minutes to write something that incorporated the words written on them. It was a common writing prompt technique, a nice way to wake up our sleepy brains, and since it worked so well for me in class, I wondered if it could work as a game with my friends. So, one evening when the gang was over at Apartment 3, I pulled out slips of paper and we wrote questions on them. We dropped them in a Tupperware bowl and one-by-one, we drew a slip of paper, read the question aloud and then gave our answer.

We were game players—we had a special affinity for card games that involved shouting—but this game was different. There were no right or wrong answers, no points to earn or teams to beat. It was just a bowl full of questions that ran the gamut from deep and insightful to tawdry and ridiculous. It was intended to be an off-center way to learn about each other’s current state of thinking—where we were as pertained to our feelings and convictions on issues that would matter long after the bubble of our college life had popped—and some of the big genre issues included questions about being gay, getting married, and having sex. There were also questions about dream proposals, favorite movies and music that made us cry. Some weren’t questions at all. One slip of paper directed each person to say something they loved about the reader of the card. Another directed the reader to do the same for everyone else. It was a healthy exercise in transparency and during the times we played, the answers were both funny and challenging.

The last night my gang was all together before graduation took us in the scattered directions of our post-college lives, we pulled out “Life’s Questions” one final time. Digging through the plastic bin, we already knew each other’s answers because we’d heard them so many times before but it was nice to hear them aloud again. Those answers would be trapped in the vacuum of that moment and while over time, our thoughts would evolve and change based off of new learned experiences, that moment of being honest with each other and ourselves was a special one to me.

It’s been ten years since we began playing that game and while most of the questions have long been forgotten, I’m reminded of one specific piece of paper among the dozens in the bin. It read: “What do you want your life to look like in ten years?” Well here I am, ten years later, forced to contend with what my answer was then versus what my present reality looks like now.

I said I’d be living in New York, which I am, but beyond that, I didn’t know what my life would look like in the slightest. I could see as far as my grad school acceptance letter, I hoped I’d find my way back up to the city I loved but beyond that, I was clueless. Did I have a prescribed career path? As if. I was fumbling along with all the grace of Cher Horowitz trying to drive and to be frank, I was totally buggin’. Most of my friends had similar answers. They could see the half step in front of them but not much further. The room was full of cosmic question marks but the one answer we all seemed to agree on was that we wanted to be happy. Regardless of if any of the other stuff panned out, we wanted to be happy.

I’ve been thinking about this for months, my writer’s mind toiling over how I’d articulate turning 35. To me, that’s a big number. I don’t mean it’s a big number in terms of feeling old—I’m not old. I mean it’s a number heavy with meaning for me; a benchmark that requires a bit of self-assessment. I hate self-evaluations when we have to do them at work but I’ve become very comfortable with self-evaluation when it comes to the state of my life and in particular, the state of my happy. That’s what I and my friends said we wanted all those years ago—to be happy—so…where am I at?

Happiness is a tough nut to crack in that it means different things to different people. What makes you happy may not make me feel the same. I happened to be reading “The Happiness Project” by Gretchen Rubin when I began this process—something I don’t consider to be happenstance—and in it, she said, “Look for happiness under your own roof.” So, I started exactly there; under my roof.

I live in New York City; it’s my favorite place in the world. For most of college, I said I would live here and for the past seven years, I have. That makes me happy.

I have my own apartment; it’s small but it’s been my own little corner since I moved to the city. I never needed a sprawling estate or an over-sized house to make me feel like I’d achieved some sort of “age-appropriate” level of adultdom. My shelves are full of dinosaurs and superheroes and Charlie Brown—all of which make me happy—and my walls are full of photographs of the people who make me even happier than dinosaurs or superheroes or Charlie Brown.

The people in those photographs—my friends and family and soulmates—come to the city to adventure with me. They let me come to their cities to adventure with them. We plan vacations to adventure in new places. They call, they text, they email, they show up. My people make an effort. Somewhere around turning 30-years-old, I realized having those people is the exception, not the rule. That fills me with both happiness and gratitude.

I’m writing every day. What a thrill to do the thing I love every day. Not everyone can say that but I can. No, I haven’t written a bestseller or changed the literary landscape of the country, but I’ve been afforded the luxury of time each day to write. How divine.

I’m in a two-year-long relationship with someone I’m crazy about and, for whatever reason, he’s crazy about me too. Two months ago, I adopted the world’s sweetest dog and as much as he frustrates me when he chews up my stuff, one might say he’s merely helping me declutter. Today, a dozen of my friends and family from Texas arrive in New York so we can laugh together all weekend. We have tickets to see a legend perform in my favorite musical tomorrow night on Broadway. Afterward, we’re having piña coladas. My parents are coming to visit in a couple months. My best friend is getting married in August. Three of my friends are pregnant with babies for whom I get to buy superhero onesies. Is there anything more wonderful?

I think Charlie Brown and his gang of friends put it best when they sang:

Happiness is…two kinds of ice cream, knowing a secret, climbing a tree. Happiness is five different crayons, catching a firefly and setting him free. Happiness is being alone every now and then and happiness is coming home again.

No mention of fancy cars, an overpriced place on Park Avenue, overflowing wallets, standing on the world’s largest stage, or being social media famous. Happiness doesn’t come from “the stuff.” Happiness comes from the everyday wonders. It comes from people and nachos and sunsets and Dole Whips and running into old friends on the train. It’s my dog when I get home from work, it’s a text from my mother, it’s popcorn at the movies on a Saturday afternoon.

I sometimes wish I still had that plastic bin of “Life’s Questions”—it would be interesting to look back on the things we cared to ask all those years ago—but when that final game of our shared college experience was over, I emptied the slips of paper into the trash. We were graduating on to new questions and we’d discover those answers as we got to them. That’s something that continues today. This next year of my life will be a pivotal one, replete with questions about what’s next and where life will zig or zag. Some adventures will come to a close and others will start anew, but amidst all of that, I come back to my original question: Am I what I hoped I’d be a decade ago? Yes. [exhale] Is my life perfect? No. Will it ever be? No. But that’s okay. There’s a lot of happy under my roof.

I went to Disney World in January, somewhere that’s called the “happiest place on Earth,” and I’ll admit that I was blissfully happy while I was in the theme parks. Then, two nights ago, I watched the sun set from Riverside Park, hues of orange and pink and purple splayed across the sky, and I realized I was just as happy at that moment in Harlem as I’d been watching fireworks erupt over the Magic Kingdom. That about sums it up for me.

Ryan’s book of essays, I Really Like My Hands Today, is available now on Amazon

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